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LGA calls for beefed-up Online Safety Bill to protect councillors from abuse

The Local Government Association (LGA) has called for better protections in the Online Safety Bill for councillors subjected to abuse from the public.

It said in a briefing on its views on various parts of the Bill that some people could leave local politics due to online harassment. The Bill was due to reach the second reading stage in the House of Commons this week.

Social media platforms and search engines should also introduce specific safeguards for those holding elected office, including fast track routes to report abuse, intimidation and harassment it said.

New harm-based, threatening, and false communication offences were welcome but the LGA said the Government and regulator Ofcom should “adopt a clearer and more robust provisions to manage low-level abuse experienced by councillors that falls below the criminal threshold”.

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The Bill contains clauses to protect journalistic and content and information of ‘democratic importance’, but the LGA sought assurances from the Government that these would not inadvertently protect perpetrators of abuse.

“Councillors are experiencing increasing levels of online intimidation, abuse and threats made against them, which can prevent elected members from representing the communities they serve and undermine public trust in democratic processes,” the briefing said.

It said: “The LGA remains concerned about the low-level abusive and false communications directed towards elected representatives that these offences might not capture.

“Low-level abuse online is a common experience for councillors and can significantly harm individuals and democracy when its cumulative impact is considered. In particular, abuse that pushes people out of politics or puts them off standing for election and smear campaigns that impact candidates’ reputation when running for election or re-election.”

Language used in the Bill about content of ‘democratic importance’ was very broad and clearer parameters were needed around content related to elections, elected members and political processes.

As currently drafted, the Bill could unintentionally protect harmful disinformation classified as ‘political speech’, the LGA said and it urged the Government and Ofcom to engage with it and the political parties “to ensure consideration of unintended consequences is thought through when developing the relevant code of practice”.

Although the LGA said it recognised the delicate balance between preserving users’ freedom of expression and civil liberties and protecting them from harmful content, it questioned whether rules on anonymity were sufficient.

“There have, for example, been recent calls for a ban on anonymity on social media to tackle online abuse, with proponents of a ban highlighting that users can feel ‘protected’ by their anonymity and emboldened to say things they would not say in person,” the briefing said.

“At the same time, the police can find it difficult to trace anonymous users who have committed current communication offences. The LGA has sympathy for these calls, with some councillors reporting receiving abuse from anonymous accounts.”

It also recognised that there were cases such as whistleblowing or risks to personal safety where anonymity was important and justified

The Bill introduces a new offence of false communication, where the LGA said it was concerned about unintended consequences and what the burden of proof would be if, for example, a person shares or re-shares false information but does not know it to be untrue.

A Government statement on the Bill said it would give Ofcom powers to fine companies failing to comply with the laws up to 10% of their annual global turnover, force them to improve their practices and block non-compliant sites.

There will be a £2.5m online media literacy strategy to help vulnerable and ‘hard-to-reach’ people navigate the internet safely spot online falsehoods.

Mark Smulian

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